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Iceland volcano: Red alert issued for Bardarbunga eruption

By Claire Cromie

Iceland has issued a red alert to the aviation industry for the Bardarbunga volcano - where a small sub-glacial eruption is under way.

On Wednesday authorities evacuated an area close to the volcano, about 200 miles from the capital Reykjavik, and the raising of the alert level indicates ash emissions are likely.

The red alert is the highest warning on the country's five-point scale.

Thousands of small earthquakes have rattled the volcano deep beneath Iceland's Vatnajokull glacier in the last week, with activity picking up on Saturday after a lull.

But aviation chiefs are confident air travellers will not face the severe ash cloud disruption of 2010.

The eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokul volcano in 2010 produced an ash cloud that caused international aviation chaos, with more than 100,000 flights cancelled.

European air space was shut down for six days, leading to losses of as much as £2 billion.

But UK air traffic control company Nats and the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have said that the UK is much better prepared to deal with any ash cloud crisis than it was four years ago.

A Nats spokeswoman said: "We are monitoring the situation in Iceland and we don't know how serious it will get and just where any ash cloud will travel if the volcano erupts.

"Even in a worst-case scenario we are in a much better position to deal with this than we were in 2010."

The CAA said: "Volcanic ash can adversely affect aircraft in a number of ways. Jet aircraft engines in particular are susceptible to damage from volcanic ash.

"That's why there are comprehensive safety arrangements in place. As a result of the work that has been undertaken since the 2010 ash crisis and arrangements that have been put in place since, we are confident that high levels of public safety can be maintained, while minimising disruption."

The CAA said the improvements include:

  • A new system of regulating the way aviation deals with ash that allows more airspace to be used safely and gives airlines more input into the process
  • Improvements in the observing and forecasting of where ash is and its density - including a new radar in Iceland to detect ash in the atmosphere
  • The establishment of two working groups including airlines and scientists to act as advisers on ash forecasting and how best to use the output from the Met Office modelling system.

Nats said that should Bardarbunga erupt, Icelandic authorities would immediately instigate a 200 nautical mile exclusion zone around the eruption and the process would begin to try to understand its severity and how much ash it was expelling into the atmosphere.

The Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) - based at the Met Office - would then produce a forecast of the likely ash behaviour every six hours. That forecast would highlight the probable location of "medium" and "high" levels of ash density.

Based on the VAAC forecast, the Civil Aviation Authority will then issue a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) advising airspace users of the location of those medium and high density areas.

Using that information and procedures previously agreed with their safety regulator, airlines would then decide whether to operate and would issue their flight plans accordingly.

For those that do operate, Nats would continue to provide an air traffic service, routing aircraft around areas of ash as required, much as it does in the event of a thunderstorm.

Nats added: "It is important to note that the decision to fly is an operational one taken by airlines in conjunction with their safety regulator.

"In the event of a volcanic eruption, passengers should always contact their airline as a first point of contact for the latest information."

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